A senior London-based law lecturer has become embroiled in an ever-growing scandal involving Israeli operatives posing as investors for a company that sells hacking and surveillance software to regimes around the world.
Dr Mazen Masri, a senior lecturer at City Law School, has been advising Mexican plaintiffs on a legal action in Israel against an Israeli company called NSO Group, which sells “special spying system software” to governments with questionable human rights records. The co-defendant is another Israeli company called Q Cyber Technologies.
Last week he became the sixth person connected to work highlighting the products of NSO Group to have been targeted by people posing as businessmen, who were in fact looking for information to discredit the case against the company.
Masri, who was targeted together with a London-based journalist, Canadian researchers and a Cyprus-based lawyer, said the men were “looking for dirt and irrelevant information about people involved,” adding: “There’s somebody who’s really interested in sabotaging the case.”
The spyware, called Pegasus, is remotely inserted into the smartphone of the target without their permission or knowledge. It allows the controller to “totally take over smartphones,” giving access to calls, photos, messages and internet history. It even allows controllers to use the target’s camera “to see the surroundings of the user”.
The plaintiffs say: “Given the great potential harm it could cause, it is treated as a weapon, and therefore, the system is sold under the supervision of the Military Export Division of the Ministry of Defence, according to the Supervision of Military Exports Law 2007.”
They added that “according to various media publications, the Ministry of Defence allows the defendants to sell its system only to countries that have good relations with Israel”.
The undercover operatives’ activities came to light after a researcher at Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, became suspicious about a man calling himself Michel Lambert, who wanted to meet in a hotel in New York.
The researcher devised a sting operation, inviting Associated Press journalists to interrupt the lunch. The story made international headlines and Lambert was later outed as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official.
Private Israeli intelligence agents hit the headlines in 2017 after it was revealed that operatives from Israeli company Black Cube used undercover officers to approach women who had accused disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.
The same company was later accused of sending undercover agents to meet Obama officials negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
Both NSO Group and Black Cube deny any wrongdoing, maintaining that they have acted within the law.